Lust, Lechery and Objectification

Posted by Sappho on July 29th, 2007 filed in Bible study, Feminism, Sexuality


You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:27-28

This really isn’t my preferred place to start, in terms of looking at the Sermon on the Mount. I’d be better off starting at the beginning, with the Beatitudes, which give you a better starting place for what the whole sermon is about. And José still has a question for me that I haven’t addressed at all. And I’m not even sure how much this post will wind up being about this passage at all.

But I think I need to bring it in, if only because I was thinking of writing about feminism and objectification, at about the same time the Sermon on the Mount came up, and this raises the question for me, as someone who often blogs about the intersection of Christianity and feminism: How do I talk about the areas where in one sense they seem to run in parallel, but in another sense really not? Such as the question of the relation between what, in Christianity, is meant by “looking at a woman lustfully” and what, in feminism, is meant by objectification and the male gaze.

Why I meant to talk about objectification to begin with: Sheelzebub, blogging at Pandagon, has a practice of “Tuesday lechery” posts, in which she blogs her favorite photos of hot male celebrities. In this past week’s Tuesday lechery post, she poked fun at some men who had complained about her posts:

Besides, we ogle you because we love you. We are firmly on the side of men. We would do whatever it takes to enable men to reach their fullest potential, including becoming the objects of our lust.

Discussion then ensued in the comments thread about, well, actually, the vast majority of the discussion was about which male celebrity was the most fitting object of lust, the appeal of men in kilts, and which male celebrities might be good for future Tuesday lechery posts. But a little of the discussion was about whether Sheelzebub’s posts do or don’t point to a degree of feminist hypocrisy on the matter of objectification.

OK, so what is the feminist complaint about objectification? And what does it apply to? Is Hunk of the Day objectification? Is Ellen DeGeneres’ list of lesbians’ picks for the hottest 100 women? How about the parallel list of gay men’s picks for the hottest 100 men? And if these are objectification, are they bad and wrong? (A parallel question would be whether these, in Christian terms, count as looking with lust. But I’m going to hold the Christian part of the discussion for later.) This is where I tease out three different meanings I can see to the word “objectification.”

Being a sexual object, in feminist thinking, is opposed to being a sexual subject. I think that the origin of this terminology comes from radical feminism, in which the whole idea of women being sexual objects is tied to an analysis of power relations, and the idea of women being seen as “the sex class.” In practice, though, not only is the term now widely used by feminists who aren’t really in the radical feminist tradition; it also gets used by women who wouldn’t self-define as feminist at all.

But I’ll start with Dworkin in “Why Women Must Get Out of Men’s Laps.”

Objectification is recognised for what it is: the dehumanising of a subordinated group for the purpose of civil and sexual dominance. Commodifying the sexuality of women is recognised for what it is: the abuse of women’s bodies as if women were products for mass consumption. Lap-dancing is seen for what it is: living pornography.

Now, Dworkin is criticizing a specific behavior here – paying for lap-dancing – as objectifying and commodifying women’s sexuality. But notice how political is the language she chooses to criticize it. One could talk about lap-dancing as bad in entirely different terms; Dworkin’s are those of women being a subordinated group.

The same thing happens when Dworkin turns to cultural criticism in “Vargas’ Blonde Sambos.”

Vargas’ subject–or object, to be more precise–is some lazy, fetishistic view of white women, pale women, usually blonde; the drawing itself delineates the boundaries of nonexistence, a white, female nonentity…. If women existed in any one of these drawings, would men be similarly aroused; or is the absence itself the turn-on? Is the work of Vargas a study in absence rather than presence?

Dworkin’s analysis of these drawings from the 40s is heavily political; the drawings have “a strategy, propagandistic, not artistic,” and “In Vargas’ so-called art both gender and race matter.” Objectification, here, is about the drawings’ emphasis on the sexual attributes of the women at the expense of their personality, but it’s also about Dworkin seeing the drawings as a representation of women’s subordination to men.

Now, one of the directions that the meaning of the word “objectification” takes – I’ll call it objectification(1) – is one which focuses on the ways in which representations of men and women differ, and objectification(1) happens when women are treated more as sexual objects than men, and men more as subjects. It appears in photos and ads that depict women as sexy and passive. And it comes up, for example, in many discussions about women in comics. Men and women in comics are both idealized forms that don’t much resemble real life, sure. But are the men idealized in a way that more emphasizes their strength, while the women are idealized and posed in a rather different way? And how about the way damsels in distress are handled?

All this kind of discussion is about the distribution of roles, and what it says about the relation between women and men. Do women die for male character development? Not good. But if one could picture a set of comics in which women and men were equally likely to be the focal character, and occasionally either a woman or a man died for another character’s development, that’s a different thing. So, too, with drawings where most of the emphasis is on the woman’s sexual attributes. The complaint is about women being represented as cheesecake while men get to do other things, not about anything intrinsic to cheesecake as such. If a line of Beefcake And Cheesecake Comics poses all its superheroes, male and female alike, in ridiculously sexual poses, that’s not objectification(1).

A second meaning of “objectification” – I’ll call it objectification(2) – focuses on behavior which treats a woman as sexual object rather than subject by being intrusive and disregarding the woman’s wishes and boundaries. No one actually wants to be objectified in this way himself; when men say, on occasion, that they’d love to be treated as a sexual object, they have an entirely different sort of “sexual object” role in mind. belledame222, in her lengthy series on objectification starting here, writes about this sort of objectification.

When people say that someone or something is “objectifying,” with a negative connotation, what they generally mean is that it’s invasive. That is to say: penetrating someone else’s boundaries, not necessarily in a concretely identifiable physical way–more on that in just a moment–against the someone else’s wishes.

A few examples of what is, and isn’t, objectification(2):

Calling out to a woman on the street that you like her butt: Check. It’s safe to say that she’ll find it intrusive and threatening.

Saying the same thing to a woman who has already undressed for you in private: Possibly a sin in Christian terms, depending on what sort of a relationship the two of you have, but certainly not objectification(2).

Making a sexual/romantic advance to a woman at a club: Maybe objectification(2) and maybe not, depending on the nature of the advance and what signals you’ve gotten so far from the woman.

Making the same advance to a woman in a job interview: Definitely objectification(2).

Posting photos of female law students to a public web site and rating them for attractiveness? Objectification(2). Posting photos of celebrities (whether male, as in Sheelzebub’s post, or female) and commenting on their sexual attractiveness? Not objectification(2). Commenting on the sexual attractiveness of TV and movie stars isn’t invasive and intrusive in the same way as commenting on the attractiveness of law students, for two reasons: First, the stars are already public figures, and the law students aren’t. Second, the stars’ employability (and perception of their professional skill as actors) isn’t hurt by people finding them sexy, but law students’ employability and perception of their professional seriousness may be hurt if they’re assumed to have consented to be part of something like an online beauty contest.

On the other hand, celebrities can certainly be objectified in the third meaning of the word, what I’ll call objectification(3): reducing people to their sexual characteristics and ignoring the rest of their personality. I think this must be the meaning of objectification that those men mean, that I mentioned earlier as saying that they’d love to be sexual objects. No one really wants, as I said, the intrusive sort of objectification, but one might well want, at a given time, to be admired more for sexiness than for something else.

Now objectification(3) – which, if taken far enough, can lead to objectification(2) – is a big part of both men’s and women’s sexuality. Martha Nussbaum talks about this in her analysis of Dworkin and MacKinnon as heirs to Kant.

Kant: sexual desire is a �very powerful force that conduces to the thinglike treatment of persons� as �tools for the satisfaction of one�s own desires� [325].

That is, sexual desire causes instrumentalizing of others, which is very closely linked to denials of autonomy (controlling the other to ensure one�s own satisfaction) and subjectivity (not caring about the other�s satisfaction).� Kant thinks sex does this because sex involves such acute sensation that it causes one to be riveted on one�s own bodily states to the exclusion of all other thoughts (in particular, of the other person as a person).� This is true of both parties, who volunteer to be dehumanized so that they can do so in return.

He seems to think that in a typical sex act both parties eagerly desire both to be objectifiers and to be objects. [326]

Although Dworkin and MacKinnon appear to be influenced by Kant, they depart from him in the following ways:
Objectification is part of sex because of the way we have been socialized by our society that is �suffused with hierarchy and domination�
Objectification is asymmetrical � only the one in the female role is objectified (compare with Stoltenberg and Baker�s similar views)
Kant thinks marriage solves the problem, D & M think marriage, reflecting the hierarchy, is part of the problem.

At this point, I’m finally going to make my way back to my starting text:

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:27-28

What’s the context for this saying? Jesus is presenting a new view of the Law. Matthew 5:17-18 has announced that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and that not the smallest letter will disappear from the law; there follows a discussion of how the Law is to be fulfilled, starting with a fuller emphasis on the meaning of a couple of the Ten Commandments. You have heard it said that you are not to kill, but don’t stop there: even harsh words to your brother may make you liable to judgment (Matthew 5:21-22). Be ready to reconcile with your brother (Matthew 5:23-26). The words about looking with lust, in particular, are discussed in the context of adultery, and followed by a discussion of marriage and divorce.

The sermon as a whole is setting forth a high standard of conduct, of which we’re likely to find ourselves falling short. We are not to retaliate for any wrongs done to us (Matthew 5:38-42), and we are to be absolutely truthful (Matthew 5:33-37). I have to admit that I’ve fallen short by this standard, and probably you do, too. Sometimes I lie. Sometimes I insult other people, and probably have said things quite as bad as whatever the Aramaic word “Raca” (Matthew 5:22) may mean.

“Looking with lust,” though, is striking in that, according to one ordinary meaning of the English translation, it appears to be not only a difficult commandment, but a biologically impossible one. We all find ourselves sexually attracted to people we aren’t married to, and this happens at a point before our will is even involved. Now, my reading of the Sermon on the Mount is that it’s meant to actually be followed, not simply to be a standard to show us that we can never be right. Jesus might set a standard that in fact has us all falling short. And he might use hyperbole in making his point. But he’s not urging us to do things that are actually physically impossible. So I’d tend to reject that particular ordinary meaning of “looking with lust” as what could be intended here. And, from what I can tell, even relatively sexually stringent churches don’t take this meaning. Catholic thinking, for example, seems to make a distinction between those sexual thoughts that simply come to your mind unbidden, and those that you “entertain.” This still seems to leave rather a range of opinion as to what counts as unacceptably entertaining lustful thoughts (Andrew Greeley being at the liberal end of the spectrum). But whatever it is, it’s something that involves choice, not involuntary physical reactions.

Years ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine from my old meeting, of this passage, and she said something that stuck with me. That was that she saw “looking with lust” as being the point where your thinking starts to involve entitlement. As I thought about it, this reading actually made sense to me, for two reasons.

The first is that Jesus is speaking from a Jewish perspective about the Ten Commandments, and, sure enough, there’s a commandment that talks about coveting. And what’s coveting, if not desiring something of someone else’s and allowing yourself to come to think you’re entitled to it. If I simply like my neighbor’s house, and enjoy visiting it and being entertained there, that’s not coveting.

The second reason that my friend’s reading makes sense to me is that it makes the Sermon on the Mount line up with my own experience, as the woman who has been looked at lustfully – namely, that not just being desired, but being desired in combination with a sense of entitlement, is where the problem kicks in. In this way, the Sermon on the Mount can be read to line up with feminist thinking on objectification, but, more importantly to me, also with my experience. And I do prefer it when I can find readings that put Bible and experience in sync, rather than at odds.

Still, though “looking with lust” can, in this way, be seen as speaking of something similar to what feminism speaks of as objectification and the male gaze, I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between feminist and Christian analysis here. The range of meanings that can attach to objectification may overlap with the range of meanings that can attach to looking with lust, but it’s still a different range (as Hugo, who like me blogs of the intersection between Christianity and feminism, often finds when he takes a more restrictive view of what’s acceptable in sexual fantasy than do many of his readers). And the focus is different. Whatever Jesus may have to say to us about how we should relate to power, I don’t think that the passage about looking at a woman lustfully is about women’s subordination as a class to men. He’s not addressing what I’ve called objectification(1) in any way.

I’m not sure if there are any particular boundaries to be pulled from the Sermon on the Mount when it comes to objectifying movie stars, Tuesday lechery, and Other Boyfriend™ blogging. I tend to think there’s room for Jill’s harmless admiration of the Silver Fox. But, hey, I’m lenient; maybe there’s a space in the Christian continuum where even gushing over Anderson Cooper would be considered to be crossing the line. What I’m pretty sure of is that, wherever that line may be, it isn’t inherently going to wind up in the same place as a feminist analysis would draw it, and so, if you’re both Christian and feminist, you want to be clear on just which analysis you’re using at a given time.

For myself, I tend to rely on my friend’s remark about entitlement – am I letting my thoughts drift toward persuading myself that I’m entitled to stuff I have no business being entitled to? – and my husband’s comfort, and the words of a few close friends from Meeting who know me and my marriage well, as guidelines to know whether I’m crossing any lines.



2 Responses to “Lust, Lechery and Objectification”

  1. José Solano Says:

    Well Lynn, this certainly illustrates how far we might be, not so much from understanding the Sermon on the Mount but in applying it. The first problem of many is the refusal to acknowledge any validity in the Sermon on the Mount, the second, perhaps the greater problem, is to recognize its absolute importance for living a Christian life and yet entertain all sorts of absolutely contrary titillations almost as if to taunt God.

    For this, among other reasons, God has placed within His teaching the admonition of the possible total and irrevocable perdition.

    The understanding of the Sermon on the Mount does not come about through some intellectual analysis of its applicability in varied degenerate fantasies nor by abstracting a particular precept of the Sermon while divorcing it from the total teaching. The Sermon relates to the total human condition and everything taught is to work simultaneously in the sanctification process. The Sermon is so simple and straightforward that any child can understand it and perhaps better than the adult that has so filled his mind with perverse mentation and imagination. To contemplate the Sermon properly is to immediately seek to apply it to one’s life by a radical cleansing of all vanity, self-esteem, self-centeredness, desire to exploit another, etc., while all the time praying for the power to slay the serpent that whispers in one’s ear that one is deserving of (entitled to) anything. There can be no pretension of whether one should or should not do something. Because of its simplicity the Sermon really penetrates our self-deception efforts and leaves its seed in our soul to relentlessly torment our conscience with guilt, a blessed guilt that finds its release only in confession, in the recognition that we have been fooling ourselves as we toyed with depraved speculations.

    Rather than allow a stream of thought processes to engage us in analyses of superficial and delusional amusements, even the very talk of “movie stars”, one must instantaneously say “STOP!” We must not mix the contemplation of holiness with the consideration of vain activities. In the simplest childlike attitude one must understand that “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

    I wish you a thoroughly improved day. Perhaps, if you have the time, some further consideration of my little question might be of help.

  2. Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Always True To You Darling In My Fashion Says:

    [...] suggested that I was over-intellectualizing in my earlier post about looking with lust. And, he’s right; that post was heavy on analysis and short on [...]